Show Hide image

A restaurant that caters for adult children like me? You’re having a giraffe

Will Self's "Real Meals" column.

Numbers of giraffes (Girrafa camelopardalis) in the African wild have more or less halved over the past decade, while the numbers of Giraffes (Restaurant pseudoglobalis) in the urban areas of Britain have more than doubled. I wonder if there may be some axiom at work here and that the inverse correlation is a fixed law. It would follow that anyone could start any old chain of crap restaurants, calling them – for example – Platypus; and so long as the namesake species was rapidly exterminated, success would be guaranteed. I realise this is a troubling business plan – but we live in troubling times.

Who’s necks?

I first became aware of Giraffe, the restaurant, in the early 2000s. But I don’t recall chowing down in one until 2008, when, tucked up in some lofty nook of the newly opened Heathrow Terminal 5, we indulged our hideous picky-eater children in buttock-soft burgers and stiff little fries, knowing full well that they’d refuse the free airline food waiting for them beyond the departure gate. It could’ve been the pre-flight tension or it could’ve been the terminal itself but the only memory I have of that meal are the giraffe-shaped swizzle sticks the youngest insisted on clutching in his sweaty palms all the way to New York.

Four years on, and with 43 Giraffes now wavering across our stony-hearted Serengeti, all the way from Aberdeen to Portsmouth, the time seemed right to give it another go. All critics should beware of prejudice: the irritating fungal complaint that makes the most painterly surface appear . . . flaky. This being noted, surely a man can be forgiven for approaching a chain restaurant in a crappy mood – especially one that announces on its website that “It’s about exploring the wonderful foods from around the globe and opening our ears to music from around the world. Giraffes are so tall they see a different view of the world.” Curiously, the two locations the Giraffe people pick as their diners’ imaginative loci are: “‘anywhere from Sydney to Israel – somewhere sunny and full of smiles”.

Hmm – when I was last there, Sydney was a pretty tough town, and as for Israel, don’t get me started. Still, I wasn’t eating the Giraffe website. I and my now 11-year-old were being shown to a grim little circular table hard beside a big concrete pillar, while all around us roiled an international migrant workforce serving food to tourists. I could see there were lots of better tables that were vacant, so I snagged a servitor and complained. She plonked us back down on vinyl poufs in the reception area, cleared one of these better tables and then reseated us.
Was I mollified? Was I fuck. I scanned the menu: chicken potstickers, oregano halloumi skewers, falafel “deluxe” burger – blah, blah, blah . . . world, world, world. The waitress reappeared and took our drinks order. When she came back with apple juice for the young master and the ten-millionth sparkling mineral water of my effervescent life, she took our food order. Mine was simple: grilled salmon, mashed potato, a green salad. I couldn’t have the cherry tomato, fire-roasted corn and jalapeño salsa for reasons of gastric rather than psychic intolerance. As for the boy, he gave his burger order complete with a series of negative stipulations: no tomato, no mayonnaise and no lettuce – just bun, cheese, meat. I’m used to this bollocks, so paid it no mind until the patty appeared and he lifted its top lid and began to moan plaintively because there was something healthy in there.

Hated mayo

Next, I did the bad thing. Was it because of the swizzle sticks – or because I am congenitally illhumoured, or perhaps I simply wanted to challenge the fundamental taboos that surround eating in our benighted culture? I don’t know – and I don’t care. I picked up the offending burger and squeezed it in my fist until the hated mayonnaise squirted from between my clenched knuckles and spattered across the tabletop; then I dropped the macerated lump back on his plate, rose and went to the bathroom to wash. When I came back, expecting uproar, I found nothing but smiley calm: the waitress had cleared everything up and told me she was bringing a new burger without the offending gloop. Chastened, I ate my salmon, mash and salad – hardly world food but exactly the sort of thing I eat at home, and just as tasty.

Worse was to come, because they didn’t even charge me for my intemperance – and how god-dam smiley is that? By the time we left I was beginning to think that this really was a family-oriented establishment, so perfectly did they cater to adult children.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

Almeida Theatre
Show Hide image

Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.